“Papa Hemingway in Cuba” is a flat, uninspired, tiresome misfire of a movie. The film is based on the true story of Miami reporter Denne Bart Petitclerc (here renamed “Ed” and played with an “oh god, why can’t I be anywhere but here” deer in the headlights look by Giovanni Ribisi). Ed was a big Hemingway fan who penned a letter to the author in the late 1950s. The letter caught Papa Hemingway’s (Adrian Sparks) attention and soon Ed was invited down to Cuba to visit with the reclusive author and his fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson). The film dramatizes this friendship and the series of visits in the dullest way possible, and it is one of the worst biopics I think I’ve ever seen.
The film feels far too ‘stagey’ to be even remotely engaging and is poorly directed by Bob Yari, a man who has no business behind the lens of a camera. The film is packed with odd pauses, abrupt fadeouts and a confusing overuse of Cuban music that ineffectually scores far too many scenes. In order to stretch the film’s run time (I’m guessing because they needed a certain number of minutes to get feature-length financing for this debacle), we are treated to repeated scenes of drunken mumbling, menacing gun waving, liberating skinny dipping, and lots of shirtless, inebriated yelling.
At one point I could swear I was watching a crummy soap opera.
Remember when Joey on the television show “Friends” would wax poetic about ‘smell the fart‘ acting? Well, there’s plenty of that thespian style going on here. I’m sure Richardson wasn’t trying to make me laugh with her over-the-top hysterics, but her performance is so dreadful that it became funny early on. Ditto for Sparks’ violent, paranoid outbursts. The screeching matches between the two are so awful that their performances are better suited for an amateur community dinner theater than a feature film.
After the dinner party scene (which features a big, unintentionally comical blow up between the two), I actually started to feel bad that I could no longer stifle my mockery of chortles and laughter. These performances are grade-A bad in every sense of the word. The ridiculously simple, poorly written dialogue doesn’t help matters either; one such example of the gems the actors have to deliver: “Go to hell,” Ernest sneers, prompting Mary to fire back “I’m already there!!” Yikes.
I did enjoy seeing Finca Vigia, the real Hemingway house (now a museum) and the shots in and around Cuba, but even the setting couldn’t keep this film from sinking. This is a mildly interesting true story that’s ruined with monotonous, unskilled direction and inept acting. I wouldn’t even recommend this yawner to the most die-hard Hemingway fans.
You know that warning that precedes every episode of “South Park?” The one that says that “this show should not be viewed by anyone?” That statement applies to “Papa Hemingway in Cuba.” A truly terrible movie with some of the worst direction in recent memory, I can’t recommend the film to anyone.
On paper, “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” sounds like it could be interesting. The movie follows Miami Herald reporter Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) as he strikes up a friendship with Ernest (Adrian Sparks) and Mary (Joely Richardson) Hemingway and spends time with them in Cuba during the Castro-led revolution against Batista. The Hemingways serve as surrogate parents to the orphaned Myers, and Ernest attempts to impart life lessons and wisdom to his would-be son. But Ernest, who is gradually losing his sanity, is not in much of a position to mentor Myers, particularly given the violence that surrounds them on a daily basis as Cuba falls to the revolutionaries.
See what I mean? From that description, it sounds like it could be really good, right? Trust me, it’s not.
For its sheer awfulness, there is much blame to spread around, but the buck starts and stops with director Bob Yari. Yari (a longtime producer whose credits include “Crash,” “The Illusionist,” “Factory Girl,” and many others) has absolutely no business putting himself behind the camera. Seriously, this movie is so poorly-directed that it makes Peter Billingsley (the “just-o.k.” director of “Term Life“) look like Martin Scorsese.
Why do I say that? Let me count the ways. Let’s start with the melodramatic performances of the actors (Richardson in particular) who overacted in spectacular fashion, playing to a non-existent balcony. At times this movie felt so much like a bad stage play that I was shocked to learn that it wasn’t based on one.
Then there was the terrible editing where we would jump from person to person, scene to scene, with no sense of transition or the passage of time. It was very difficult to tell how much time passed in this film from shot to shot — both over the life of the movie and even in certain scenes (a dinner scene in particular was cut so badly that it was both jarring and confusing).
Added to those glaring problems was obvious and simply dreadful ADR looping where the actors’ boomingly loud voices didn’t match the background or the conversations; throwaway expository lines that had no purpose other than to tell the audience what was happening; and horrible camera placement that failed to capture seemingly important actions and reactions of the characters during conversations.
Finally, let’s not forget the title card that informed us that the movie’s name is simply “Papa,” whereas the marquee and IMDB clearly call it “Papa Hemingway in Cuba.” For this to have clearly been a passion project for Yari (why else would he have made it?), it sure seems like he took a lot of short cuts and rushed it to the theaters. Inexplicably, a lot of those theaters seem to be carrying this film, but it’s almost impossible to find the wonderful “Sing Street.” Apparently, Yari has plenty of pull with distributors. He should have used it on a better project.